Throughout her life, Freda Bedi crossed borders, defying easy labels. An English woman who became Indian; a person born, raised and educated at the heart of Empire who went to jail because she believed in a free India; a Christian girl who became a Bhiksuni, a Buddhist nun.
This book tells her remarkable story.
About the Author
It was my destiny to go to India.' From the moment she married a handsome young Sikh at a registry office in Oxford in 1933, Freda Bedi, and nee Houlston, regarded herself as Indian, even though it was another year before she-set foot in the country. She was English by birth and upbringing-and Indian by marriage, cultural affinity and political loyalty. Later, she travelled the world as a revered Buddhist teacher, but India would remain her home to the end.
The life of Freda Bedi is a remarkable story of multiple border crossings, confounding accepted definitions of identity. Born in a middle-class home in provincial England, she became a champion of Indian nationalism, even serving time in jail in Lahore as a Satyagrahi. In Kashmir in the 1940s, while her husband B.P.L. Bedi drafted the 'New Kashmir' manifesto, she kept in contact with underground left-wing nationalists, and joined a women's militia set up to defend Srinagar from invading Pakistani tribesmen. In the 1950s, she encountered Buddhism during a visit to Burma and embarked on a new, profoundly spiritual, journey. In 1959, she persuaded Nehru to give her a role coordinating efforts to help Tibetan refugees and immersed herself in the project, setting up a school for young lamas and a nunnery. Some years later, she became the first western woman, and possibly the first woman ever, to receive full ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
This meticulously researched and superbly written biography does perfect justice to Freda Bedi's extraordinary life. By interviewing her children and friends, and delving into the family's extensive archives of letters and recordings-as well as official records and newspaper archives-Andrew Whitehead paints a compelling picture of a woman who challenged barriers of nation, religion, race and gender, always remaining true to her strong sense of justice and equity.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD is-much like the subject of this biography-a British-born journalist who married into India and brought his family up in Delhi. He spent four years as the BBC India correspondent and later was a BBC News presenter and the Editor of BBC World Service News.
Andrew studied history at Oxford University and has a PhD for his work on the history of Kashmir. He is the author of A Mission in Kashmir, which uses oral history and personal testimony to re-examine the established narratives of that long-running crisis. He has also been a longstanding editor of History Workshop Journal, a twice-yearly publication from Oxford University Press which has pioneered `history from below'.
He now lives in London and is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in England and a visiting professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.
When Freda Houlston confided that she was going to marry the handsome Sikh student she'd been seeing, her best friend, Barbara Castle, replied: 'Well, thank goodness. Now at least you won't become a suburban housewife!' Freda's mother was exactly that-a housewife in the suburbs of Derby in the English Midlands. It would have been natural, expected indeed, for her daughter to fall into that same groove. In fact, Freda refused to fit into any groove. She broke the mould-not once, but repeatedly through the decades. In a world where issues of identity-bound up in race, gender, religion and nationality-loom so large, the manner in which she crossed these boundaries speaks directly to us today.
`It was my destiny to go to India,' Freda declared. And from the moment of her marriage to B.P.L. Bedi at a registry office in Oxford in the summer of 1933, she regarded herself as Indian and adopted Indian dress. It would be another year or more before she set foot on Indian soil. By the time she disembarked at Bombay (now Mumbai), twenty-three years old and with her baby son in her arms, she had already co-edited with her husband four volumes about the country she was to make her home.
She lived for two-thirds of her life in India, adopted its national cause and customs, and took an Indian passport. She served a prison sentence in Lahore as part of Gandhi's protests against an Imperial power which happened to be her motherland. She was an English champion of Indian nationalism. Freda Bedi delighted in confounding accepted definitions of identity. She could not easily be categorized and saw no reason why she should be. 'One day she was standing in the Lahore Post Office buying stamps,' said her publishers. 'An American looked at her blue eyes and Punjabi dress, and his curiosity broke the bonds of formality. Walking up to her, he asked: "Excuse me, are you English?" She smiled and said: "I am-and I am not."'
Her spiritual journey was as profound and remarkable. She was church-going as a youngster but by the time she enrolled at St Hugh's College, Oxford, in 1929, she no longer regarded herself as a Christian and never returned to the faith she was born into. She encountered Buddhism in Burma in her early forties, and a few years later her endeavors to help Tibetan refugees marked her most intense moment of illumination. The solace she found in Tibetan Buddhism emboldened her to enroll, in the mid-1960s when such adventures in eastern religions were rare for western women, as a novice nun. A few years later, she took full ordination-the first western woman to do so in Tibetan Buddhism, and quite possibly the first woman in the Tibetan tradition ever to receive this higher level of initiation. She went on to perform two remarkable services which helped Tibetan Buddhists adapt to exile-recognizing and meeting the need to educate young incarnate lamas, giving them the skills and confidence to find new audiences; and persuading her guru, the 16th Karmapa Lama, one of the highest Tibetan lamas, to make a pioneering rock star-style tour of the west in 1974 to spread Buddhist teachings and accompanying him on this five-month peregrination across North America and Europe.
Freda challenged barriers of gender as well as of nation and religion. When she was born women did not have the vote in British Parliamentary elections; Oxford University's first woman professor (Agnes Headlamp-Morley, who had been one of Freda's tutors) was appointed fully fifteen years after Freda graduated; the Church of England, the church into which she was confirmed, ordained no women priests or deacons in England in her lifetime. Her own prominence in politics and religion, and her pioneering role in women's education and journalism, is made more exceptional by the exclusion of women for much of the twentieth century from large areas of public Endeavour.
Throughout her life, Freda constantly reinvented herself. There was a restless, questing, aspect to her alongside the discipline and compassion. She was a woman of faith-but one who was an active leftist before alighting on the religion which came to define her. She must have been rare among nuns in once having drilled, rifle on her shoulder, in a people's militia. Yet the three big ruptures of her life-from a provincial town to a women's college at Oxford University, from England to India, and from welfare work to ordination as a nun-were not a repudiation of her past. Thirty years after she left Derby, girls at her old school were collecting money for a new school Freda was setting up in the Himalayan foothills for young Tibetan lamas. Her best friends at Oxford remained in touch all her life, even once she was in holy orders. While wearing the maroon robes of a nun and with her head shaved, visitors sometimes commented how quintessentially English she still seemed.
Her life was shaped by two tragic deaths-that of her father on the First World War battlefields, and of her second child while still a baby when Freda had lived less than two years in India. There was an emotional vulnerability evident from her childhood onwards. And a steely determination too-once she had decided on a course of action, she saw it through.
Book's Contents and Sample Pages
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